The Sound of Silence: Rediscovering the silent film era

By Sergio González | 12:44

Silent films are often disregarded by modern viewers.  Not having any special effects (sound included) and their projection speed being too slow are usually the main criticisms. The truth is, most of us don’t generally enjoy silent films because we approach them wrongly. Also, the poor quality of the footage that has survived into modern times doesn’t help.

Silent film actors came straight from theatres and we should keep that in mind to see our first silent movie. Acting is dramatized, as it’s due on any stage, and miming necessarily has to be overacted to transmit the feelings and emotions that sound doesn’t deliver.
Actually, silent films had sound, though it was live music played at the theatre (not cinema yet), usually a piano or an organ if we are talking about a city theatre. Sometimes, they also had a speaker narrating the main scenes or whenever a doubt about what was going on in the film could arise.  

In Japan, benshis -literally, interpreters- were very famous and matched perfectly the local taste for storytelling. Benshis were not mere narrators who would only read the intertitles or add some voices to the characters but would also put in their own comments and thoughts, enriching (most of the times) the film aesthetics. Because of this, silent films were still popular in Japan some years after first sound films started and nowadays are back on track. Neo-banshis are hot in Japan and Korea but also in California where film narration gives the last retro touch. Don’t miss the silent film festival at Castro Theatre in San Francisco and don’t forget to keep and eye on Chicago’s Silent Film Society.

For the past few years we have seen many repositions, remakes, prequels and sequels of famous films coming to light every season but neo-benshing can become the new dimension we are looking for at films. Not everything has to be 3D and flashing special effects.

The first sound film ever, feature-length, was The Jazz Singer where a young Jewish pianist wants to succeed in music business despite his family’s objection. Nowadays we see actors as stars and they have every door open but back in the 1920’s telling your folks you wanted to become an artist was a bad idea: actors and singers were banned from most fancy restaurants and hotels and disregarded by the upper classes.

The Jazz Singer was released in October 1927 and it had both good and bad criticism, mainly because of blackfacing (theatrical make-up caricaturing a stereotypical African American) and for the overabundance of songs. Anyway, the film was a huge success and viewers, now also listeners, started applauding since the very first ever talking phrase ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.’

If you are thinking about joining the cool banshi trend and surprise your friends with your movietelling skills, here you can find a list by IMDb of the best silent films that are just waiting for you to talk and comment about it. 

Photo credit: The Library of Congress


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